Jerusalem: Between Ferguson and Damascus

Do we act like our neighbors in Damascus and Cairo, meeting protests and violence with escalations of violence? Or do we act like America, where excessive force is considered a grave offense?

A Palestinian protester stands in front of an Israeli car set torched during clashes with Israeli security forces in east Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian protester stands in front of an Israeli car set torched during clashes with Israeli security forces in east Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"Jerusalem is burning and you are not taking any significant steps to stop the blaze. You are only adding fuel to the fire.”
So said opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening session of the Knesset this week.
Netanyahu has two more pyromaniacs at his side adding fuel to the fire: the Israeli Police and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
Netanyahu continues to approve more Jewish housing starts in east Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank. The Israeli Police is using excessive force in suppressing the rioting in east Jerusalem, and Barkat has announced a campaign of collective punishment.
The police are firing tear gas and sponge bullets in a seemingly random manner – most of the houses in Isawiya are said to have broken windows. East Jerusalem residents claim the infamous “skunk truck” which spews a vile-smelling liquid has been used not just to disperse rioters but to punish residents.
They claim police have used clubs to smash car windows. Isawiya’s mukhtar, Darwish Darwish, said, “This makes no sense. They’re just heating things up instead of calming things down.”
Meanwhile, Mayor Barkat has told municipal department heads to punish east Jerusalem residents for any violations of the municipal code – everything from traffic offenses to unlicensed businesses, house demolitions and animal confiscations.
The reported goal of the policy is to “compel the Palestinian public to act against Palestinian youth who have been clashing virtually daily with police in east Jerusalem neighborhoods.”
In other words, collective punishment.
My initial reaction on thinking about these crazy policies was “typical Israeli behavior: arrogant, forceful, unsympathetic.” But as I thought about it more, it seems like the behavior is typical Middle Eastern behavior: If people from a tribe different from the tribe of the nation’s leaders protest or riot, the protest is met with force and violence. We see how well that approach has worked for Bashar Assad next door in Damascus. The country has been plunged into a horrible civil war for several years now.
Not quite as extreme as Damascus, a similar approach prevails with our neighbor to the south, Egypt. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi crushes protests from the Muslim Brotherhood with violence and disdains to speak to its members. It is reported that Egyptian police have stormed college campuses with tear gas and have even fired birdshot in lecture halls. Maybe Egypt is “quieter” than Damascus, but does anyone think Sisi’s approach is going to work long term? Israel likes to consider itself a part of the “enlightened Western world.” With our cosmopolitan, multi-national society, booming hi-tech sector, membership in the OECD, we sometimes think of ourselves as a little outpost of the “civilized world” (Europe and America) in the heart of the Middle East.
As such, it’s instructive to compare the “Western approach” to dealing with rioting with the Middle Eastern approach.
The town of Ferguson, Missouri, was wracked by two weeks of violent protests and rioting after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer. Police destroyed a memorial to the young man, inflaming tensions.
After the protests turned violent the next day – including looting – the police responded the way Israeli police respond every day: with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Police responded to continuing protests with greater violence and militarization of the police force, sending in SWAT teams and arresting people, including journalists, en masse.
So far Ferguson sounds like Israel – but what’s difference is the response of the federal government and the public. The public was outraged. President Barack Obama said, “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests, or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”
On Wednesday US Attorney- General Eric Holder said there was a need for a “wholesale change” in the town’s police department. The Justice Department has launched an investigation into whether the police in Ferguson engaged in civil rights violations unrelated to the specific circumstances of Brown’s death.
As harsh as the condemnation of the Ferguson police department has been, can you imagine how much harsher it would have been if the police there did what the police here are accused of doing? Shooting out most of the windows in homes on the main street? Deploying a “skunk truck” in an indiscriminate fashion? The town would have been placed under federal control.
Israel needs to choose. Do we act like our neighbors in Damascus and Cairo, meeting protests and violence with escalations of violence? Or do we want to act like America, where excessive force is considered a grave offense and discrimination (i.e., collective punishment) is not tolerated.
The Torah forbids legal discrimination: “You shall have one law for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God.” (Leviticus 24:22). The police have proposed to punish the parents of Arab kids who riot, which is also forbidden by the Torah: “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor shall children be put to death for parents; a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.” (Deuteronomy 24:16).
In principle, anyone should be able to live anywhere (Jews in east Jerusalem and Muslims in west Jerusalem) and all people should be welcome to visit all holy sites (including Jews visiting the Temple Mount and Muslims visiting the Western Wall), but the way to accomplish that is not in a one-sided fashion rammed through with force, violence, and without consideration for the sensitivities of others.
Instead of acting like our neighbors, Israel should live up to the ideals of the Torah and behave the way the “civilized society” we want to be a part of behaves.
Instead of adding fuel to the fire in Jerusalem, our leaders should be listening to the residents of east Jerusalem, get a better understanding of their concerns and issues, and avoid taking steps that create more anger and more resentment, and do nothing but lead to more violence.
Barry Leff is a rabbi and businessman living in Jerusalem, and former chairman of Rabbis for Human Rights.